AAPI Progresssive Champion - Helen Gym

As we celebrate Asian Pacific American History Month, we’d like to highlight some local AAPI champions who are doing important work to lead our community into a brighter future. Everyone doing progressive work, no matter how big or small, deserves our support and recognition. Our AAPI Progressive Champion this week is Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Seated in 2016, Councilwoman Gym is a longtime education and community activist and the first Asian American woman to serve on Philadelphia City Council. She has led the strongest progressive municipal agenda in the city - defending Sanctuary Cities, fighting for quality public schools and ending a 17-year state takeover of the school system, and addressing poverty through groundbreaking new laws that mandate stable schedules for part-time workers and a legal defense fund for renters facing eviction. As vice chair of Local Progress, she is leading a national network of local electeds moving progressive policies in big cities and small towns all across the nation.

This is what AAPI progress means to Councilwoman Gym:

I come out of movements for justice that center the voices of people over politicians. I cut my teeth fighting Mayors and developers who would take Chinatown land for taxpayer-funded boondoggles like stadiums and casinos. As a former teacher and mom, I led the charge against a 17-year state takeover of our schools that tried to pass off privatization, school closures, and budget cuts as “progressive.” Instead we took on the corporate interests, privatizers and lobbyists and we organized for a vision for quality schools, safe communities, and decent jobs.

This is not a politics for those who want a safe path to power. This is a politics for the people.

So for me, AAPI progress in this moment means that the grassroots energy sweeping through this nation, energizing our youth and making politics meaningful – rather than just a spectacle – is moving at the local level.

It challenges all of us to remain deeply rooted in our community’s struggles. It means that we as AAPIs have to constantly push back against the Model Minority stereotypes deployed at will to divide communities of color. It means we cannot be the face of affirmative action, of magnet school admissions, hyper-privileged Tiger Moms, and test score tyranny that runs at deep odds with the experiences of our young people in struggling public schools. It means we’re fighting for school funding and advancing policies about community colleges and language access and ending the school to prison pipeline because the majority of our AAPI children attend public schools and institutions.

It means we’re not the face of those telling newer immigrant and refugee communities to get in the back of the line when it comes to discussion of immigration. It means we are no longer willing to accept mass incarceration as well as deportation as a way of life in disenfranchised communities.

It means we fight for the right to have organized unions, especially for home health care workers, those in the hotel and hospitality industry, and food service industry where so many newer immigrants are employed. We want a higher minimum wage, workers’ rights, and paid leave – and we have an obligation and opportunity to make sure our voices are part of that struggle.

It means we’re talking about race and intersectionality – not some of the time, but all of the time. We have to be leaders in denouncing anti-Muslim hate and misogyny, and allies in the fight for Black Lives Matter, for criminal justice reform, racial and economic justice, and with and for our LGBTQ and trans communities. It means we put forward nuanced analysis that brings to light the complexities of intersecting marginalization.

AAPI movements and experiences put us squarely within a rising progressive political movement that is revitalizing our communities and energizing our nation. As Asian Americans, we have fought for visibility and voice throughout our history. This is not a time to sit on the sidelines. Let’s keep organizing, let’s keep mobilizing and let’s get out there and be heard.

Rebecca Lee